HAIKU (Judge: Michele Root-Bernstein)
Judging the 2014 haiku contest for HPNC has been a great privilege. I have tried to listen to each and every poem with attention, curiosity, and empathy. In addition to deft control of haiku elements and techniques, I have favored in my final selections those poems that also surprised me, whether in freshness of image, “lucky” language, unexpected emotional response, or transformative insight into phenomena. The six poems selected here, and many more unsung, lodged themselves within my heart and mind. ~ Michele Root-Bernstein
First Place ($100)
cherries in bloom…
the delicate application
of makeup to bruise
folding lilac scent
into his burial flag
This haiku thrives on the sensuousness of its imagery as well as the lightness with which it handles one of the saddest moments of our lives. Even as line 1 prepares us for mourning, line 2 introduces the vigorous scent of early spring blossoms—a seasonal contradiction, it would seem, to our emotional condition. Line 3 ups the ante, informing us that we bury a soldier, honored for military service. The short-lived blooms of the lilac bush suggest, too, that we bury someone killed in action, in the prime of life. All this we intuit or infer. The ku itself focuses our attention on smell and its strong link to memory. The sweetness in this death is that this soldier will not be forgotten.
Third Place ($25)
shifting expectations dandelion fluff
This spare juxtaposition of natural and cognitive phenomena shifts in emphasis as we consider the moment. On a literal level, we are watching the dandelion fluff float here, there, up and down in the breeze, not sure where it will land, where it will seed. Figuratively, the path we take through life may seem to mirror that haphazard journey. Alternate meanings of the word “fluff”—a bungling or misplay, or something essentially trivial—expand these ruminations.
This haiku makes effective use of the conditional “as if” to create a dual reality. From a distance, dusk rises up the slopes of the mountain and the poem’s persona wings with it. Yet at the summit, dusk finally and irrevocably falls, as does the illusion of flight. Like a Gestalt image, the haiku moment contains both potentials.
a fig tree enters
In this haiku, redolent with physical and spiritual loneliness, the object (as Barthes would have it) becomes an event. The fig tree acts, rather than the fog, and opens us up to the possibility that we are the agents of our aloneness. The sound values in this ku also work to enhance the soft effacements of solitude.
slips a little
With just the right touch of humor, this haiku lets us know that point of view is all in relationships. Even the sun’s primacy may be called into question; the passage of moons and moods affects our fundamental feelings, if only temporarily. The repetition of short i’s lends just the right vocalization, too, to the gentle scold.
My selection of the winning poems focused chiefly on these factors: 1) skill in using the tanka five-line form, 2) fresh treatment of subject matter, and 3) layered meaning and nuance, and 4) overall memorability, focus, meaningfulness, and ability to engage and hold the reader's imagination.
Sweeping the board, congratulations to Kirsty Karkow for a virtuoso performance. Her poems show versatility in all the categories named above and reveal a well-seasoned understanding of tanka dynamics and aesthetics, an ability to shift and maneuver to fit the occasion, and a mind capable of drawing meaningful experience and depth of feeling and thought out of a world of concrete things and ordinary events.
Our second place winner, Janet Lynn Davis, shows similar powers in the large story she tells with such economy and punch on a theme that touches all lives. Davis sets complex material plainly before us in unadorned, simple phrasing. Her poem contains the biography and history of two people, heading into the future with love and understanding renewed however much their relationship has take on a new footing. In the poem's moment of truth, compassion and reason appear to triumph. There is much tenderness here, but it's left unstated, hanging in the poem's aura of emotional completeness.
First Place ($100)
joys of a tropic childhood
she startles him
by taking off her clothes
to dance naked in the rain
to use a walker
she leans on me
for the first time in her life
a little more is learned --
of various beasts
and why the milk maid cries
Honorable Mentions (not ranked)
shall we grab it
and throw fresh popcorn
to the grubbling ducks?
have suffered greatly?
leaning from the balcony
to shout go away
As usual, choosing among the many good poems offered was a great challenge. My first couple readings trimmed the bulk of submissions to my top 30, which I further reduced to 13 after a week’s gestation and a couple subsequent readings. After another few days of allowing these poems to resonate with me, I have arrived at my 6 favorites, plus a “bonus” pick.
First Place ($100)
and my neighbor’s
don’t quite meet
If good fences make good neighbors, as Frost would have it, what do irregular fences make? What should that little indeterminate zone tell us? How did it come to be that a gap was left? Was it done by the current owners or by their predecessors? Do the neighbor’s dogs or the burgeoning deer use it as a throughway into our yard or garden? Who mows there? Is there room enough in the gap for a political sign? If so, what sign? All the interesting activities of humans take place in the interstices, and this small gem recognizes this fact in very economical terms.
hair in place
The dance of allurement, seemingly so wild and spontaneous, is in fact highly choreographed and precisely plotted. We must remove ourselves from our involvement in the moment to notice this calculation. And the perfect emblem for this realization is the dancer’s physical presentation itself: not a hair out of place. I appreciate the line breaks here—“her every” indeed . . .
a fork in the road . . .
she opens the map
while I read GPS
The fork, we are led to believe, is not solely in the road. This is the sort of experience that reveals character, as both of these actors already know.
My three Honorable Mentions all possess the archness of worldly wise minds. They all recognize a reality fraught with danger, and the likely inability that humans will manage to cope with it in anything approaching best form. The homeliest of these
among the seagulls
recognizes that there are always two kinds of birds, and we know what kind we are. Do I also detect a whiff of George Zimmerman in this? The most cynical of these
a warning for someone
much farther away
finds humor in the knowing that such a resource will never serve his own purposes. And the one most likely to be experienced by us all
his health insurance
is simply grim in the face of our social contract. I would have scored this a bit higher had its line breaks served its humor a bit better. And I would be remiss if I did not recognize this truly horrific groaner
into the wind
The less said about this, the better.
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